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Making Sense of Contemporary Politics

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

If you have been paying even the slightest attention lately, politics in the United States is, well, rather strange. From the circulation of fake news on social media to a rather unorthodox president, it can be difficult to figure out just what is happening to American democracy. Luckily, communication scholars have been interested in better understanding how both citizens and politicians argue with one another and lead our nation for many years now. And two scholars doing great work in political communication research are KU’s own Dr. Ashley Muddiman and Dr. Robert Rowland.

Dr. Ashley Muddiman

While political communication has been a central research interest of communication scholars for decades, the internet and social media have had a serious impact on political communication. Dr. Ashley Muddiman is on the forefront of that research. For the past several years, Dr. Muddiman has looked into what happens when our political norms are violated, especially on the internet.

Dr. Muddiman is particularly interested in the role of political civility in online political communication. Researchers tend to think that people are drawn to negativity – they see headlines about political incivility (such as “fighting” in Congress) and want to click on them. Dr. Muddiman has found some evidence that suggests the opposite and is currently working to extend that research.

            In addition, Dr. Muddiman is also working on a project that may eventually allow her to help journalists and digital news organizations keep citizens better informed and more engaged in politics. Specifically, she has been working with a national digital news journalist to see which sorts of news headlines get the most engagement on Facebook. Using specialized software, Dr. Muddiman works with the journalist to slightly change headlines of news stories in real-time to see what types of words or phrases generate the most response (likes, shares, and comments). This work, which she began while working with the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, is sure to prove valuable.


Dr. Robert Rowland

Dr. Robert Rowland has spent the past several decades investigating political communication, producing over 50 articles and a book on the subject. In this work, he has focused on two critical puzzles.

First, Dr. Rowland is interested in understanding why some presidents have been transformative and others have not. Many scholars, especially in political science, have argued that a president’s rhetoric does not matter. Dr. Rowland says while that might be true in the short term, his research has demonstrated that rhetoric does matter in a president’s long-term influence and legacy. Much of this work has been related to President Reagan, though recently Dr. Rowland has begun examining President Obama as well. Dr. Rowland argues that presidents have the most influence long-term when they have a coherent, consistent message rooted in the American Dream.

Second, Dr. Rowland is also interested in political debates and the “limited power of reason” within them. Dr. Rowland has done several studies to analyze the content of presidential debate to determine if they successfully present information and arguments that are useful to voters when making decisions about who to vote for. Dr. Rowland argues that the role of argumentation has declined, especially in the 2016 presidential debates, and that these debates are much more akin to political theatre than actual debate. 

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